by Maxim Gorky
Theoretical Design, Bristol Old Vic, 2016
Director: Bill Alexander
Set & Costume Designer: Eleanor Bull
Featuring a new ‘middle-class’, Summerfolk explores the intensifying relationships of a generation of contemporaries who feel at odds with their assumed position in society. Stuck for the summer in a cluster of dachas, with only one another for company, they begin struggling to keep composure. By the end, any sense of decorum is abandoned and the friendship group becomes irrevocably fragmented, reflecting the atmosphere of the wider society in Russia at the time: ready for revolution.
Wanting to draw on that sense of isolation, I aimed to highlight the contrast between these small, fleeting, manmade structures, and how they’re dwarfed by the mass of ominous, looming trees- growing so close that characters can at any moment appear like ghosts through the forest - helped further by the cream costume palette.
I took inspiration from the forms of shipwrecks, thinking of the characters as castaways lost in the environment they don’t know or understand. This is reflected in the set: at the beginning of the play the dacha is more conventional and uniform in form, but as we move from act to act it sweeps round the stage, its upright struts missing the trees by millimetres, and shows itself from other angles, where the form is in a state of abstract decay.
The dacha (Russian holiday chalet) changes position on stage from scene to scene. The stage directions dictate that the scenes take place in and around Bassov's dacha, but from different angles and in slightly different places.
When the scene changes happen: the dacha, in full view of the audience, slowly sweeps elliptically round the stage. It moves as if it were part of the forest (perhaps it once was), the wooden structure moving through the negative space left by the suspended trees as if it were one body. The vertical uprights of the dacha just narrowly miss the trees suspended above them, instead moving gracefully round them in some precarious dance.
Here the dacha is seen in its most conventionally ordered state, it is more linear in form, reflecting the trees all around. It is recognisably some sort of chalet.
Inside is a writing desk and a lamp
Following the first scene transition, where we see the dacha sweep across the stage in a curved trajectory, the second scene sees the dacha from its other side. Now the form of the dacha looks far more chaotic and broken-down, reflecting the relationships surrounding it,
Rotating again, this time to reduce its visual presence on the stage. As the isolation of the characters increases, so does the presence of nature on the stage. They crave their normal lives filled with the trappings of mankind, and feel increasingly uneasy in this intimidating natural environment. The suspended trees feel precarious, as do the volatile relationships.